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Williams v. Quest Diagnostics, Inc.

Supreme Court of South Carolina

June 27, 2018

Amy Elizabeth Williams, as the Personal Representative of the Estate for deceased minor; and Amy Elizabeth Williams, individually, Plaintiffs,
v.
Quest Diagnostics, Inc., Athena Diagnostics, Inc., and ADI Holdings, Inc., Defendants. Appellate Case No. 2017-000787

          Heard February 14, 2018

          ON CERTIFICATION FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA Margaret B. Seymour, Senior United States District Judge

          Bradford W. Cranshaw, Trevor M. Hughey, G. Robert DeLoach, III, Matthew M. McGuire, and James Ervin, all of Columbia, for Plaintiffs.

          John C. Moylan, III, and Alice W. Parham Casey, both of Columbia, and Wallace K. Lightsey and Wade S. Kolb, III, both of Greenville, for Defendants.

          KITTREDGE, JUSTICE.

         This Court accepted the following certified question from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina:

Is a federally licensed genetic testing laboratory acting as a "licensed health care provider" as defined by S.C. Code Ann. § 38-79-410 when, at the request of a patient's treating physician, the laboratory performs genetic testing to detect an existing disease or disorder?

Answer: Yes.

         I.

         This wrongful death action arises from the death of a minor. The deceased was a young child experiencing seizures; the treating physician sent the child's DNA[1] to Defendants' genetic testing laboratory for the purpose of diagnosing the child's disease or disorder. It is alleged the genetic testing laboratory failed to properly determine the child's condition. The child died, and this action followed. Defendants assert that the genetic testing laboratory is a "licensed health care provider" pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 38-79-410 (2015). Defendants further contend that Plaintiffs' claims concern medical malpractice, thereby rendering the medical malpractice statute of repose applicable.[2] See S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-545 (2005). A determination of the nature of Plaintiffs' claims (and the applicability of the medical malpractice statute of repose) is not before us, only the narrow question certified by the federal district court.

         II.

         As defined in section 38-79-410, "'[l]icensed health care providers' means physicians and surgeons; directors, officers, and trustees of hospitals; nurses; oral surgeons; dentists; pharmacists; chiropractors; optometrists; podiatrists; hospitals; nursing homes; or any similar category of licensed health care providers." (emphasis added). "Our primary function in interpreting a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the Legislature." Swanigan v. Am. Nat. Red Cross, 313 S.C. 416, 419, 438 S.E.2d 251, 252 (1993) (citing Wright v. Colleton Cty. Sch. Dist., 301 S.C. 282, 391 S.E.2d 564 (1990)). "When the Legislature uses words of particular and specific meaning followed by general words, the general words are construed to embrace only persons or things of the same general kind or class as those enumerated." Id. (citing State v. Patterson, 261 S.C. 362, 200 S.E.2d 68 (1973)).

         Under this canon of statutory construction, a genetic testing laboratory that performs testing at the request of a patient's treating physician for the purpose of assisting the treating physician in detecting an existing disease or disorder falls within the definition of "licensed health care providers." Under these circumstances, the genetic testing laboratory is performing diagnostic testing at the request of a treating physician for the purpose of diagnosis and treatment, which is a core function of hospitals in diagnosing and treating patients. See, e.g., SC Code Ann. § 15-79-110(4) (Supp. 2017) ("'Hospital' means a licensed facility with an organized medical staff to maintain and operate organized facilities and services to accommodate two or more nonrelated persons for the diagnosis, treatment, and care of such persons . . . ."); see also S.C. Code Ann. § 38-71-1920(7), (11), (12) (2015) (providing the definition of a health care provider as "an institution providing health care services"-"for the diagnosis, prevention, treatment, cure, or relief of a health condition, illness, injury, or disease"-"including, but not limited to, hospitals and . . . diagnostic, laboratory, and imaging centers" (emphasis added)). Under the circumstances presented, the genetic testing laboratory fits within the category provided by one of the specified designations in section 38-79-410, a hospital. Thus, we conclude that a genetic testing laboratory in these circumstances clearly falls within section 38-79-410's catchall of "any similar category of licensed health care providers."

         III.

         We answer the certified question in the affirmative-a genetic testing laboratory that performs genetic testing to detect an existing disease or disorder at the request of a patient's treating physician is acting as a "licensed ...


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